Folks, sorry, but there won't be an article tonight. It's been a long week medically and I'm having problems getting anything written. I hope to be back to a normal schedule soon though. Thanks for your understanding and for hanging in there.
Friday, October 24, 2014
Written by one of my favorite directors, Luc Besson, The Family stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as a married couple who just moved to France. It also happens that De Niro is a mobster (Giovanni Manzoni) who has turned states evidence against his entire gang and is now in the witness protection program. Dianna Agron and John D’Leo play their children and Tommy Lee Jones plays Robert Stansfield, their frustrated contact person with the FBI.
All of this is being done under the noses of the FBI agents who watch the family to make sure they stay out of trouble. That said, however, Jones knows the family is doing these things and he keeps threatening to end their government protection if De Niro doesn’t stop. De Niro responds by agreeing to stop causing problems and instead sets out to write his memoirs... memoirs the FBI cannot let De Niro publish.
A bloodbath ensues.
Why This Film Didn’t Work
The most critical aspect of making any comedy work is tone. No matter how good a comedy may seem on paper, if the tone of the film isn’t right, the overall feel of the film won't be right. And this can be tricky. Indeed, the landscape of films is littered with “dark comedies” that couldn’t quite find the right tone. Even Ghostbusters would have come across as a weak horror film that couldn’t decide if it would rather have been a comedy if it been just a little more serious – much as Frighteners comes across.
At first glance, this film appeared to be another Midnight Run, a brilliant comedy that plays like a drama but keeps you laughing by hitting the right tone at the perfect moments. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even close. The problem with The Family is that it never once comes across as a comedy.
Even when something seems kind of funny, the film never follows up on it. For example, I did laugh when Michelle Pfeiffer set fire to the store as revenge; it was very unexpected and opened all kinds of doors of comedic potential. But rather than make this the focal point of the story, perhaps with De Niro freaking out about what his wife has done and trying to cover it up from the FBI, they just take it in stride. De Niro barely even mentions it. The locals never investigate. The FBI doesn’t find out about it. And the film just drops it. Ditto on the water system guy and the plumber. Not only is it not credible that there would be no consequences, but these are the extreme moments that are supposed to make us laugh and they just get dropped by the film. Even the manuscript De Niro is writing is tossed aside and never goes anywhere.
So what you have here is a film that may have looked great on paper. You can see how the setup alone is appealing, as it appeared in the trailers. The actors seem perfect for the role. The story contains many of the elements a comedy should. But in moving it from paper to film, this one fell apart because it never came near projecting a comedic tone. At best, it comes across as a weak action film with a few outrageous moments that may have been intended as humor. In fact, if you didn’t tell people this was meant as a comedy, I doubt the audience would have known.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
When I first heard of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, I had no idea what it was about. This is one of those films with little marketing muscle and no box office reach; if you want to see this one, you need to go find it, so finding out what it is about is not easy. Even the description at Netflix wasn’t particularly helpful. But I liked the title and I decided to give it a chance.
The story opens by introducing some generic a-hole college kids. We then meet Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), hillbillies from West Virginia. As this film appeared to be setting up a hillbilly slasher film, I almost turned it off at that point. Fortunately, I didn’t.
As they stock up on provisions, like a six pound jar of pickled eggs, the group of college students pulls up at the same gas station and tries to buy beer. This leads to a series of accidental confrontations which freak out the college kids, making them think that Tucker and Dale are hillbilly rapist/killers. When Dale then approaches the group to speak to one of the girls, things go wrong because he’s holding a scythe and makes the mistake of following horrible advice about laughing at whatever they say. The college kids freak out and flee the scene.
A few minutes later, we discover that the vacation home is a fixer-upper which needs a lot more work than they originally expected. It also seems to have been owned by a mass murderer as the place is decorated in bones and there are newspaper clippings of killings on the wall. Tucker and Dale don’t seem to understand the significance of this, however, and they go fishing.
I’ll leave the rest to you to discover.
Why This Film Worked
Parodies may seem easy because there are so many of them, but few of them are very good. This is because parody is actually quite difficult. The goal of a quality parody is to find some truth within the thing being parodied that the audience normally overlooks and then exploit that truth to poke fun at the original property. Some films are fairly good at this, like the first few Scary Movie films, which mocked various iconic horror scenes while telling their own story. Ultimately, those films weren’t particularly logical or realistic, but they were funny because they put their finger on flaws we overlooked in the iconic films they were parodying. Other parodies have been less successful. Take, for example, Meet the Spartans or any film from that set of filmmakers. These are putrid parodies because they simply repeat a story and throw in whatever gag they can think of into each scene whether they are connected to the scene in any way or not. Hence, most of the jokes were random, low-hanging fruit that just weren’t funny or relevant.
I had little hope for Tucker and Dale vs. Evil on the parody front. For one thing, the hillbilly slasher films are so poorly done as a group that they already operate as parody. Indeed, there’s very little left to laugh at in those films because you’ve already rolled your eyes at everything that can be parodied as you watched the originals. Moreover, it’s just not clear how you could make a hillbilly rapist funny or likeable enough to get you to invest in the character as an object of humor.
Indeed, this film gives you all the scenes you’ve come to expect: the hillbilly sodomy, the wood chipper killing, the chainsaw attack, the dead cop who failed to call for backup, the digging-your-own grave scene, etc.... but each of those scenes is twisted around in ways that are clever, strangely believable, and hilarious. Adding to this are the reactions of the hillbillies, which are polar opposites of what we’ve come to expect. Indeed, rather than being cold-blooded, inbred killing machines like a moonshine fueled T-900, Tucker and Dale are soft-hearted, sensitive, and terrified at what is happening. Dale doesn’t even like fishing because he doesn’t want to hurt a fish.
Not only does this entire scene work perfectly in the sense of making total sense as to how it plays out and how each side reacts, but it’s also such an intensely clever and unexpected twist on a common scene from hillbilly slasher films that you can’t help but burst out laughing throughout the scene. Making this even funnier though is the priceless reaction of Tucker, who freaks out.
In fact, what really makes this film work are the hilarious reactions of Tucker and Dale throughout as they find themselves in a truly surreal situation with which they are ill-equipped to cope. Tudyk, who is one of the best voice actors ever (e.g. King Candy from Wreck-It-Ralph) and has played wonderfully enjoyable characters in shows like Firefly and films like Dodgeball, plays another gem of a character here. He’s the smart one of the two and he does indeed manage to grasp 99% of what is happening. Unfortunately, that last 1% is the killer as the conclusions he draws in each situation are simply dead wrong. This makes you laugh at everything he does.
And honestly, watching the creative ways the college students kill each other off by accident as Tucker and Dale try to stop them, only to be seen as having caused the deaths, is just consistently hilarious throughout.
This is one of those films that I expected to hate. I assumed it would be stupid and pointless and offer little more than a disguised slasher film. But it wasn’t. Instead, I found a film that is clever, engaging and hilarious. This is a film with characters you will like. This is a film that relentlessly mocks the hillbilly slasher films, but does so in such a good-natured, innocent way that you can’t help but enjoy the film.
I absolutely recommend this one.
Friday, October 10, 2014
When 47 Ronin was marketed in the US, it was presented as Keanu Reeves leads a small army of samurai against a magical army of demons. Kind of a samurai version of The Matrix. Indeed, it had all the hallmarks of anime. In reality, however, this film is definitely not any of that. What this film is, is a retelling of the classic story of The 47 Ronin with hints of magic added for flavor.
Despite being forbidden from seeking revenge under pain of death, these Ronin felt such a strong sense of duty to their beloved dead lord that they planned to avenge his death against the emperor’s orders. To that end, they waited one year. Then they met up, infiltrated the castle of the offender, and killed him. More importantly, once they had satisfied their need to fulfill their duty, they satisfied their honor by gathering in the courtyard and committing ritual suicide to comply with the emperor’s order.
As I said above, Keanu’s 47 Ronin sounded like anime when it was marketed. It was sold as some battle for survival against a supernatural army. But that’s not at all what the film is about. To the contrary, the film was simply a retelling of the 47 Ronin story. So needless to say, that was the first huge problem audiences encountered – misguided expectations.
All told, I recommend this film if you are into samurai films. I thought it was well done, well shot and well told. The actors were good. The dialog was decent. The story was well-known, but also added fresh elements. I would rate this as an above-average samurai film. But if that isn’t your thing, then by all means, stay away because the film offers nothing beyond that... this is a niche film, and that's why it bombed at the theater.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
The Strain is a television horror series that premiered on F/X this year and it’s now completed its first season. You can still catch it on demand, however, and I believe Hulu has the whole thing at the moment. Created by Guillermo del Toro and based on a trilogy of novels of the same name, The Strain follows a CDC doctor named Dr. Ephraim “Eph” Goodweather. Eph is extremely talented, but not the best team player. He tends to take his job very seriously and he doesn’t care much about things like the economic effects of shutting down an entire airport, so his boss don't care much for him.
Eph is soon distressed to learn that the CDC has chosen to blame the airline for negligently allowing a gas leak on the plane to kill everyone and they release the four survivors from quarantine. Meanwhile, some key cargo from the plane is stolen, i.e. a massive carved box filled with soil.
The next few episodes follow Eph as his personal life falls apart (fortunately, this ends quickly in the series) and as he continues to fight with the CDC and continues to try to solve what really happened. In the meantime, we follow the four survivors as they become increasingly sick. Specifically, they begin to crave blood and their bodies begin to change in ugly ways. We also learn that the cargo was stolen by a rich man who is working for a German who is the agent of someone called “the Master.” These men have corrupted a great many people and in the first few episodes you see them call in favors. For example, they contact the CDC and get the investigation stopped. They hire someone to shut down the internet. And they have someone on Eph’s team under their control.
I highly recommend this one. It’s not Shakespeare. It doesn’t break all that much new ground, except the viral take on vampirism is pretty fascinating. What the show does do, however, is engross you with great characters and compelling storylines that will make you wish each episode was much longer than it is.
Friday, October 3, 2014
Before I outline the plot of Riddick, it’s worth revisiting the prior two films. Although both were written and directed by the same man, David Twohy, and both star the same actor playing the same character, they are remarkably different films. Pitch Black is more traditional science fiction with a narrow story taking place in a confined area. It is a character study as a handful of stranded characters struggle against an enemy that exists only in science fiction – a flock of blood-drinking, flying creatures who live in the dark, with the first half involving discovery of the creatures and the second half escape. This story was well written, well acted, well shot, and all around created a truly immersive experience for the audience, who had no problems believing what they were seeing.
As these two films were so different, the question became: would Riddick be more like Chronicles or more like Pitch Black, or would it be something else entirely?
Naturally, they refuse.
From there, the film turns into a three-way struggle as the two groups of bounty hunters compete to get Riddick for their own reasons and Riddick works to eliminate them so he can take one of the ships and leave... at least until they realize that a storm is coming and once the storm comes, blood-sucking creatures who live in the rain will come try to kill them. Sound familiar?
On the surface, I should have loved this film. The story itself was well written, the design of the film is excellent, and it was all well shot. Diesel remains an excellent actor and Riddick remains an excellent character. Yet, somehow, the more I watched this film, the less I liked it. And by the time the ending came, I really had come to dislike this film. But why?
I think the ultimate answer to why I didn’t like this film was that it felt like a cliche of the entire franchise. No new ground was broken anywhere and, to the contrary, everything you saw was stolen from one of the prior two films. For example, the set up for this film mimicked that of Pitch Black, with bounty hunters replacing the random passengers of Pitch Black. The monsters who attack them in the end are virtual clones in every substantive way of those in Pitch Black. The bounty hunters feel like total knock-offs of the bounty hunters (minus the charismatic Toombs (Nick Chinlund)) from Chronicles. What's worse, none of these characters had a real personality. They just stood around acting tough by standing very still and whispering death threats at each other. That got old fast.
When Riddick was first introduced in Pitch Black, he blew me away. Here was a character who made the toughest of tough guys look soft, but at the same time, he was awash in traits we like. For example, Riddick never blew his own horn by telling us how tough he was. Instead, his nemesis Johns told us how tough he was. For his part, Riddick downplayed his own toughness. Riddick also demonstrated right away that he wasn't the cold-blooded killer his character was presented as. To the contrary, he offered help, guidance and moral support to the other characters. Indeed, he quickly became their leader because he had such strong leadership traits. Combining this with his desire to remain isolated and the other characters' fear of him created a wonderfully ironic situation where they needed him on many levels, but no one knew if he could be trusted except you the audience. That built a lot of trust and pulled you into the character; it made you like him a lot.
Even in Chronicles, where they raised Riddick's profile by declaring him a sort of dark messiah as the last of the Furian race and as the one destined to destroy the Lord Marshall and bring down the Necromongers, Riddick still remained self-effacing. In comment after comment, Riddick disclaims any desire to be involved, points out his own lack of education and his lack of ability to change the world. And the few times he was called upon to prove his toughness, he did it with his actions and a minimum number of words. This gave him a sense of humility and continued his reluctant hero character, both of which are traits we like in our heroes.
This is why I couldn't get into this film. The story and set up are entirely stolen from the first two films; there is nothing original. And what they have copied, they copied in style only but without the critical substance which made it all such fun. Add the lack of any goodnatured bad guy for you to sort-of cheer for along with Riddick, and Riddick changing from self-effacing, funny and misunderstood superhero into cold-blooded, smug predator, and you have a film that lost everything that set the first two film apart. It's no wonder the film made less than a third of the others and just over a third of its budget.
Friday, September 26, 2014
In the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and several assassinations, Hollywood films began to reflect a more cynical and paranoid culture, where the enemy was often not out there but perhaps right next door. Thus was born the conspiracy thriller. People often mention Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and Marathon Man, along with lesser-known films like Executive Action and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. But for me, the most unsettling film of the bunch is The Parallax View.
Presidential candidate Charles Carroll is assassinated at the top of the Space Needle. An armed man is chased and falls to his death, but another armed man gets away. A Congressional committee determines that the assassination was the work of a lone gunman. Three years later… one of the witnesses, TV reporter Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), visits her ex-boyfriend, newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty). She explains that a number of witnesses to the assassination have died under mysterious circumstances – she fears she’s next. A short time later, she’s found dead and the police label it a drug overdose. Frady decides to investigate and finds himself in the small town of Salmontail where the sheriff tries to kill him near a dam as its floodgates open. Frady gets away and discovers documents in the sheriff’s house relating to the mysterious Parallax Corporation. Their stock in trade: recruiting assassins. Frady also talks to Carroll’s aide Austin Tucker but the boat they’re on explodes. Frady, presumed dead, applies to Parallax under an alias.
frequently dwarfed by his surroundings. There are shots toward the end of the film… mundane things like escalators and tile ceilings, but they way they’re framed (in full anamorphic widescreen), they take on a slightly more sinister appearance. Michael Small’s sparse score contributes to the uneasy feeling. There’s a theme, which works as a twisted anthem. The assassinations aren’t scored at all, nor is the sequence on the plane. And then there’s the Parallax test, which is given a folk melody with a male hum. The test took four months for the filmmakers to research and edit and it’s simple yet a little unnerving. (In the novel, the lead character simply reads words while his reactions are monitored with a special eyepiece.) And the first time I watched this, I nearly jumped out of my seat during the dam scene when the floodgate alarm goes off.
liberal suburbanite, and Black Sunday, in which he plays a VA bureaucrat.
There might be a 70s vibe to the movie at times – the plane/bomb scene might be the most dated for obvious reasons – but it still holds up, though it’s not mentioned nearly as much as similar films from the period. I have no idea why. It’s very low-key, the character relationships are all very understated, and there’s no partisanship. (Frady doesn’t place blame on our government or any particular politician, and the Parallax Corporation goes after people of all stripes.) Pakula’s stated intention wasn’t to trash America but to simply ask what happened to it.
“We're in the business of reporting the news, not creating it.”
(Special thanks to Film Score Monthly’s online liner notes by Scott Bettencourt and Alexander Kaplan for the behind the scenes trivia.)
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
The premise of the show is genius. Imagine if every storybook character you can think of, from Snow White to Captain Hook to some major surprises in between lived in the same enchanted forest and basically knew each other. Now imagine if all those characters were suddenly transported to our world, to live in a town named Storybrooke in Maine. Only, none of these characters has any memory of who they really are. The one exception is the evil Queen who cast the curse which brought them all to Storybrooke. She's made herself the mayor.
The story is largely presented through the eyes of Emma Swan (Jennifer Morrison), who is the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming. She was sent to our world to avoid the curse and save the rest of them. She, however, has no idea about any of this, nor does she believe it when she is told. Her only concern is Henry. Henry is the son she abandoned when she was young, and he lives in Storybrooke. He tells Emma about her destiny and shows her a book of fairy tales as proof that everyone in Storybrooke is from a fairy tale. Incidentally, he has been adopted by the evil Queen, who is raising him as her adopted son.
All told, each episode is entertaining, though some are better than others. Several of the characters are really quite excellent as well. In particular, the evil Queen (Lana Parrilla) is excellent. She’s complex and interesting and you never quite know when she will be evil or when she will try to be good. Parrilla does a great job too of portraying a woman who is simultaneously wildly out of control and incapable of taking NO for an answer, and yet a woman who desperately seeks affirmation from other people. Even better, noted actor Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting) plays Rumpelstiltskin, who is the heart of this show. Rumpelstiltskin is the evil force behind everything that has happened. He is a joy to watch as he manipulates everyone and demonstrates an utter lack of conscience. Minor characters like Grumpy the Dwarf and Hook are excellent as well, as is young Henry (Jared Gilmore).
If you compare this to the better network productions, like those made by HBO or AMC, you will be struck immediately by the higher production values on cable. The film quality on those shows is that of film stock rather than the made-for-TV video like Once uses. This makes a huge difference in the “real” feel of the productions. Further, the cable networks rarely let commercial breaks dictate the pace of the story, and they will simply stop for a break rather than forcing in an unnatural cliffhanger. The result is that the cable shows feel more realistic, like they involve real people rather than actors. Moreover, the other networks aren’t afraid to interject more complexity. People die every episode on HBO. Lovers have sex and betray each other. Evil people do evil things which hurt people. And good characters are routinely presented with complex and difficult moral choices that rarely offer easy solutions.
So ultimately, I would say that Once is an entertaining show that leaves a ton of potential on the table. It’s still worth watching, but it could have been awesome if it had been freed from the restrictions that still seem to haunt network broadcast television.
Tuesday, September 23, 2014
The Princess and the Frog is the story of Tiana, a black woman from New Orleans circa 1930s. She is a talented cook with dreams of opening her own restaurant, a dream she got from her father who has since passed. The story opens with Tiana working hard in a restaurant to save up enough money to buy an abandoned building to start her restaurant. She has finally saved enough! Hurray! Only, she's told that another buyer has appeared and she has only twenty-four hours to raise her offer, something she cannot do. Boo!
All in all, this was an excellent Disney film, easily the best after a miserable decade for Disney. The story is fast paced and relatable despite being both ethnic and deeply Louisiana. The art work is beautiful. Bits of the film are clever. And the songs are well done in a Broadway sort of way, which is greatly appreciated after Disney’s two decade use of ultra-bland, entirely forgettable corporate pop, like the song Elton John and Phil Collins kept passing off as different songs throughout the 1990s.
The stereotype argument is even worse. For one thing, there are no negative black stereotypes presented. Each of the black characters is presented as smart, capable, and (except for the villain) strongly pro-family and pro-community. Nobody is living on welfare, selling drugs or having kids out of wedlock. Nor are there any presentations that fit the “Uncle Tom” mold. The closest would be Tiana’s mother, but she’s not a servant; she’s an ultra-talented seamstress and business owner.
I think where the “racist” argument springs from is the idea that it’s somehow racist to show blacks in roles they occupied historically if they are shown to be happy and not the victims of white oppression. Hence, the fact that Tiana doesn’t struggle against white oppression offends the aggrieved left as a whitewash. That is ridiculous, however. In fact, if you think about it, this argument would relegate every black story to being about white racism, and blacks could never tell their own stories without the focus being on whites. Now THAT would be racist!
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
The Hunger Games takes place 74 years after some sort of nuclear civil war in the United States resulted in the separation of the country into a twelve districts (a thirteenth is mentioned, but is also mentioned as having been destroyed) under the dictatorial control of a central power. The country is called Panem, but few details about it are given. The film doesn’t even tell you where this central power resides, though you are told it is called “the Capitol” and it has the look of a fantasy version of Washington state.
The children are then trained and paraded before television audiences. They are told to be likable so that sponsors will send them critical gifts during the game. They are also taught martial arts. It turns out, by the way, that Katniss has superior skills to the other kids.
Finally, they are dumped into a forested area and told to kill each other off.
A Good Movie, But Hardly Conservative
I’ve heard a lot of conservatives, particularly libertarians, who identify with these books and swear they have libertarian overtones. That may be true of the books, but this film really doesn’t have political overtones. Apart from some vague populist finger pointing at a fantasy centralized power dominating the country in some future dystopia, there is virtually nothing political in this film, and certainly nothing that would qualify as a coherent political statement. Indeed, none of the characters fights for freedom. None of the characters even talks up freedom. The theme of abuse of power is barely explored, except as a plot device to heighten the challenge Katniss faces, and the theory of how concentrated power leads to abuse is entirely absent from the film. In fact, objectively speaking, we don’t even know that this government is particularly abusive except for the Hunger Games itself and the disparity of wealth between the various districts.
So, as far as the film goes, there is nothing particular conservative going on.
Another issue that is both a positive and a negative involves this being the first film in the series. On the one hand, this film feels complete and it doesn’t seem to spend any time setting up the sequels. I appreciate that as too many films like this feel hollow and incomplete as they spend all their time setting up sequels with introductions that won’t pay off during the film. On the other hand, this story by itself doesn’t offer all that much to make you want to revisit the film. Indeed, I suspect the re-watchability of this film will depend entirely on the re-watchability of the sequels.
Ultimately, this film doesn’t feel particularly consequential, nor is it particularly deep, nor does it leave you much to think about after you leave the theater, but it is a good film that is worth seeing. I don’t really see the political appeal for conservatives except for a general lack of liberalism, but I suspect there is more in the books that didn’t translate to the film.